The Weekly Newsmagazine of Science
Volume 155, Number 11 (March 13, 1999)
By P. Weiss
America's oldest precollege science-scholarship contest has chosen the youngest first-place winner in its 58-year history.
Natalia Toro, 14, of Boulder, Colo., took top honors in the Intel Science Talent Search with a theoretical study of subatomic particles called neutrinos. Her project taps into one of the hottest topics in physics (SN: 1/30/99, p. 76). Toro is the first young woman since 1995 to win the premier award, this year a $50,000 scholarship.
Beaming and gripping the prize plaque, Toro seemed stunned by her selection at a March 8 ceremony. It came after a round of speeches and naming of runners-up, during which her hopes had flagged. "I was standing, thinking, 'It doesn't really matter,'" she recalls. "I just can't really believe it."
Toro used equations from quantum mechanics to derive results indicating that neutrinos swap identities. Her predictions agree with data obtained by physicists using a sophisticated detector.
The strong showing of quantum mechanics research carried into second place. David C. Moore of Potomac, Md., invoked quantum mechanics to model ultrasmall electronic switches made from molecules and determine their most effective structure. Moore is an Eagle Scout and competitive runner who also manages his school's computer network. He received a $40,000 scholarship.
Keith J. Winstein of Oak Park, Ill., placed third for some masterful digital sleight-of-hand. He researched ways to embed information imperceptibly into a stream of computer data, winning a $30,000 scholarship. A lover of music as well as computer science, Winstein cofounded a computing association and a jazz choir.
Carol A. Fassbinder of Elgin, Iowa, the fourth-place winner, investigated a potential new chemical control for a mite that threatens her family's honeybees and those of beekeepers across the nation. A patent on the compound is in the works.
Mathematics projects secured fifth and sixth places for Rio G. Bennin of Berkeley, Calif., and Lisa B. Schwartz of Roslyn, N.Y., respectively. Bennin developed a method of dividing a geometric figure such as a triangle into two equal parts. He has also twice won a national math competition. Schwartz explored patterns in two-way sequences of positive integers. She also edits two school publications.
The fourth- through sixth-place winners each received a $20,000 scholarship.
Capturing seventh place, Scott A. Fruhan of West Newton, Mass., found evidence that immune cells in multiple sclerosis patients attack a person's body with inflammatory hormones. Looking skyward, Kurt E. Mitman of McLean, Va., studied mysterious, fleeting blasts of energy from space known as gamma ray bursts. The eighth-place winner has submitted for publication a scientific paper he coauthored on the same topic.
Saddened that her ailing grandmother forgot her granddaughter's name, Diana Townsend-Butterworth of New York City sought a link between Alzheimer's disease and the heavy metal cadmium, work recognized by the ninth-place award. In 10th place, Alexander Wissner-Gross of New Hyde Park, N.Y., simulated the use of soccer-ball-shaped molecules, called buckyballs, for making minuscule electronic circuits.
Scholarships worth $15,000 went to the seventh- through 10th-place winners. Each of the remaining 30 finalists of the 1,470 entrants (SN: 1/30/99, p. 71) received a $3,000 scholarship.
All 40 finalists have bright prospects, says J. Richard Gott, a Princeton University astrophysicist who chairs the judges panel. Past finalists have won five Nobel prizes and a slew of other scientific honors. "If you are a baseball scout, you go out and watch people play baseball. We're testing what [students] actually do as scientists," he says.
The ceremony culminated 6 days full of judging and science activities. "This past week could be described as nothing short of amazing," said Cullen Blake, a student from Glenmont, N.Y., who was selected by his peers for an award in tribute to the recently deceased Glenn T. Seaborg (SN: 3/6/99, p. 147). The Nobel-laureate chemist judged and promoted the contest for 40 years.
From Science News, Vol. 155, No. 11, March 13, 1999, p. 165. Copyright © 1999, Science Service.
Copyright © 1999 Science Service